Meet the Istanbul Farmers Fighting to Save Their 1,500-Year-Old Urban Gardens

Authorities in Istanbul are trying to turn the ancient Yedikule urban gardens into a park, ordering the 350 farmers whose livelihoods are rooted there to leave by the end of March.
March 21, 2016, 11:00am
Photo courtesy Ali Taptık.

A raggedy looking dog bares his teeth and lurches towards me. Luckily, the tether holding him back doesn't break.

He's no Cerberus but the beast guarding one of the equally shaggy vegetable plots beneath the UNESCO-listed, 1,500-year-old walls corralling Istanbul's ancient core wants to crush intruders' bones.

The 1,500-year-old Yedikule urban gardens in Istanbul. Photo by the author.

And for good reason. The local authorities are trying to turn the ancient Yedikule urban gardens into a park, ordering the 350 or so people whose livelihoods are rooted to the land to up sticks by the end of March.

"If you throw me out on the streets, what am I going to do? I'm 53 years old and I don't have any other profession," Ahmet Ozturk, whose family has relied on the land for the past three centuries, exclaimed at a fiery press conference in January. Back then, an excavator flanked by armed policemen destroyed sheds and historic acreage that has provided fruit and veg since the Byzantine times. The authorities claim that the gardens—located on the other side of the Golden Horn from Istanbul's Taksim Square—are illegal and that the farmers have no right to be there.

When I visit, it's the back end of winter. A threadbare farmer tending to charcoal embers in the shadow of the fifth century battlements yells at the angry dog to shut up and flashes me a toothy grin. He was there with Ozturk at the beginning of the year, looking on in horror as his joint was ripped up. The demolition job was the latest blitz on the Turkish city's prized heritage by the conservative pro-government Fatih Municipality, desperate to develop Istanbul's open spaces. Large swathes of the gardens (known locally as "bosons") already lie suffocated under concrete despite the gardeners' protests.

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Defne Koryurek of Slow Food, a global organisation dedicated to preserving local food cultures, has been fighting to save the gardens hugging the Walls of Constantinople, but bridging the cultural gap between the farmers and authorities is tough. She explains that dialogue has stuttered over the past three years, although fresh developments have raised a glimmer of hope. Earlier this year the Association of Gardeners (formed in 2013) reached an agreement with the Municipality to protect at least some of the area, but it's very early days and she remains cautious.

"There's been no official statement from the Municipality, they hold all the cards but don't have the mentality to keep up with traditions," she tells me. "The gardeners, who rely on the land for survival, formed an association back in 2013 but they deal with the soil, the weather, the fertility of these places—they should not be the ones learning about historical facts and the problems of protecting a historical site."

The gardens grow fruit and vegetables using cultivation methods passed down through generations. Photo by the author.

Spring is yet to breach the colder months in Istanbul so the vegetable beds are not chock-a-block, but carpets of greens still divide the great Theodosian walls and the busy road that runs parallel. The plots offer a window onto the city's history and many of the cultivation methods used centuries ago have been passed down through generations. Environmentally friendly practices like spreading manure fertiliser and producing seeds also prevail.

"According to research, 70 percent of what was cultivated in the area based on the 6th century source of the Geoponika [a 20-book collection on agricultural lore] is still planted along the walls. [The cultivation] follows a seasonal cycle which is clearly described in Byzantine text," Alessandra Ricci, an archaeologist studying the walls, tells me.

It's easy to imagine carrots, arugula, onions, parsley, and cabbage flourishing in the fertile soil during warmer months, but one leafy vegetable has become a symbol of the gardeners' struggle: the Yedikule marul lettuce.

The large, endangered romaine variety is heralded as the perfect lettuce for a Caesar salad—its mild refreshing leaves and crisp stem holding flavour without wilting. The Byzantines are thought to have adopted lettuce cultivation and the marul has been grown in the Yedikule gardens for hundreds of years. Istanbul even holds its own lettuce festival with the Initiative for the Preservation of Historic Yedikule Gardens.

"If you throw me out on the streets, what am I going to do? I'm 53 years old and I don't have any other profession."

"We are trying to reconnect the people of Istanbul with the soil, tradition, and history," Koryurek explains. "We started the festival a year ago, we hand out seeds in the hope people might plant their own. Historically people would gather around the lettuce and celebrate spring, now we're trying to connect things so they don't fall apart and to raise hope for the gardener's plight. The marul has suffered with the destruction of the city, so we're trying to boost its presence."

Sadly I can't clock any farmers harvesting lettuce, it's the wrong time of year. There's a strange atmosphere about the place though, a kind of emptiness in the air that's amplified by the monotone clouds overhead—perhaps it's the seasonal flux.

The thought of the farmers losing the land and being robbed of an honest living is a depressing one, and it's not only the agriculturists who'll lose out. Istanbul's marketplaces will be worse off without the glut of locally grown produce spawned from the iconic gardens.

The Turkish flag flies near the Yedikule gardens. Photo by the author.

Aleksandar Sopov, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University focusing on Ottoman-era agricultural history, also tells me that the gardens are incredibly unique. He explains that Istanbul is the only ancient city in the Mediterranean basin with such concentrated agriculture in the centre of the city. Paving over Istanbul's green spaces is sadly nothing new, but—along with the other academics, activists, and archaeologists fighting for the land's future—he hopes times will change.

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"Between 1950 and 1985, around a hundred 'bostons' in the walled city were destroyed to make way for boulevards, hospitals, and housing," he says. "A few dozen were destroyed after 1985 and developers used this land to make huge profits. Something similar is happening today."

A huge Turkish flag flaps limply in the light breeze next to the great wall as I walk back towards the centre of Istanbul, where the vibrancy and culture that makes the place so fantastic is a result of preserved history. Let's hope the Municipality understands this soon, for the sake of the gardeners.